The Blue, Black & White

Estonia’s tricolour dates back to 1881, when a theology student named Jaan Bergmaan wrote a poem about a beautiful flag flying over Estonia. The only problem, for both Jaan and his countrymen, was that no flag in fact existed. Clearly, something had to be done about this. This was, after all, the time of the national awakening, when the idea of independent nationhood was on the lips of every young dreamer across the country.

In September of that year, at the Union of Estonian Students in Tartu, 20 students and one alumnus gathered to hash out ideas for a flag. All present agreed that the colours must express the character of the nation, reflect the Estonian landscape and connect to the colours of folk costumes. After long discussions, the students came up with blue, black and white. According to one interpretation, blue symbolised hope for Estonia’s future; it also represented faithfulness. Black was a reminder of the dark past to which Estonia would not return; it also depicted the country’s dark soil. White represented the attainment of enlightenment and education – an aspiration for all Estonians; it also symbolised snow in winter, light nights in summer and the Estonian birch tree.

After the colours were chosen, it took several years before the first flag was made. Three young activist women – Emilie, Paula and Miina Beermann – carried this out by sewing together a large flag made out of silk. In 1884 the students held a procession from Tartu to Otepää, a location far from the eyes of the Russian government. All members of the students’ union were there as the flag was raised over the vicarage. Afterwards it was dipped in Pühajärv (a lake considered sacred to Estonians) and locked safely away in the student archive.

Although the inauguration of the flag was a tiny event, word of the flag’s existence spread, and soon the combination of colours appeared in unions and choirs, and hung from farmhouses all across Estonia. By the end of the 19th century the blue, black and white was used in parties and at wedding ceremonies. Its first political appearance, however, didn’t arrive until 1917, when thousands of Estonians marched in St Petersburg demanding independence. In 1918 Estonia was declared independent and the flag was raised on Pikk Hermann in Tallinn’s Old Town. There it remained until the Soviet Union seized power in 1940.

During the occupation the Soviets banned the flag and once again it went underground. For Estonians, keeping the flag on the sly was a small but hopeful symbol of one day regaining nationhood. People hid flags under floorboards or unstitched the stripes and secreted them in bookcases. Those caught with the flag faced severe punishment – including a possible sentence in the Siberian gulags. Needless to say, as the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of collapse, blue, black and white returned to the stage. In February 1989 the flag was raised again on Pikk Hermann. Independence was about to be regained.